This Egyptian-American astrophysicist is pursuing her dream of going to Mars after a double mastectomy

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The race to Mars is underway, and Sarafina Nance wants to go along for the ride.

In Aug. 2021, the 28-year-old will participate in HI-SEAS, a Mars simulation run by the International MoonBase Alliance (IMA). Her mission, while separate from NASA, will feature collaboration with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and for two weeks she will live in a Hawaiian habitat that's designed to mimic the experience of living on Mars.

“My crew is six people and we basically live like we're on Mars for two weeks. So that includes wearing space suits every time we leave the habitat,” Nance tells Yahoo Life. “Having limited food and water, we have a time delay between all communications that is 20 minutes, just like we were on Mars. So it's really trying to simulate as much of living on Mars as possible to prepare astronauts in the future." 

Training to live on the Martian terrain, even if it isn’t the real thing, requires a lot of physical training. Nance has been undergoing oxygen deprivation and altitude training, and is getting her scuba certification. In July, she'll buckle up for her first zero gravity flight. “When you drop, it simulates…Martian gravity, lunar gravity or zero gravity. And so you're basically floating for a little,” says Nance.

Pushing her body to its physical limits has been important to Nance, who previously chronicled her own health journey on social media: When she was 23, her father was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer, which inspired Nance to undergo genetic testing. Her results revealed that she was positive for the BRCA 2 genetic mutation, revealing an 87 percent lifetime risk of breast cancer and 30 percent risk of ovarian cancer.

“When I was 26, I got my preventative double mastectomy to decrease my risk from 87 percent to less than 5 percent. I had three surgeries in one year, and my last one was almost exactly a year ago,” says Nance.

The astrophysicist calls her test results "anxiety-producing," and says she chose to document her journey in hopes of empowering others to advocate for their own health. Today, Nance is looking to the future, and beyond.

Sarafina Nance after preventative double mastectomy surgery (Photo: Instagram)
Sarafina Nance after preventative double mastectomy surgery (Photo: Instagram)

“I feel really, really lucky to have this opportunity to be able to pursue my dreams, especially after something that made me uncertain whether I would ever be able to do something like this,” says Nance. “I finally feel like I am physically in a good enough spot to be able to push my body and push my mind, and see sort of what I'm capable of doing.”

Nance has been dreaming about space ever since the age of 4, when she would gaze up at the night sky in Austin, Texas, with her father. She started to learn more about space after listening to NPR with her mom, and soon she decided that she wanted to be an astronaut. In 2016, Nance received a dual B.S. degree in physics and astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin's College of Natural Sciences. Today, she is an astrophysicist and graduate student in the Department of Astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley.

Even though her passion for the cosmos was evident, Nance has still found it frustrating at times to be an Egyptian-American woman pursuing STEM. “There are messages that people give young — particularly women and particularly women of color — from a very early age that maybe they're not smart enough to do math and science,” says Nance.

“I remember a teacher telling me, ‘girls just aren't cut out for this.’ And so it's hard. It's really hard to continually push forward knowing that there are people who just don't believe that you're meant to be there.”

Nance says that those messages, explicit and implicit, can shape a young girls perspective. In her work, she hopes to change the narrative about what an astrophysicist looks like, and who can be an astronaut. One tool she's using to spread this message is her upcoming children's book entitled, Little Leonardo's Fascinating World of Astronomy, which features illustrations of diverse children from all different backgrounds. 

(Photo: Kelly Mooney Photography)
Sarafina Nance. (Photo: Kelly Mooney Photography)

Along the way, Nance felt encouraged by the mentors and communities who supported her, and now she wants to create a more inclusive space — literally — by providing support and guidance for young women looking to pursue a similar path. 

“The problem is that we don't support them once they're there. And that starts from the way we speak to them, the teacher biases, the way that we give people opportunities, whose voices we decide to elevate, and what sort of representation we show young students,” says Nance. “My hope is to continue to be that sort of support and elevate other people's voices who are similarly struggling and feel like they don't belong."

The universe is endless, and that fact is what continues to inspire Nance. When she is struggling, when she has moments of doubt, she simply looks to the stars and finds new inspiration.

“I'm reminded of the perspective that the night sky brings us, of how small we are and how much there is to learn,” says Nance. “That, to me, is so comforting, and it pushes me, ignites this excitement and curiosity in me to keep going.”

Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove

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